LONDON — The fact he gives each work a number is the first thing anyone learns about Martin Creed. His website lists “Work No. 3” up to “Work No. 1674” and counting. Pointing out the UK artist likes seriality is like pointing out that Pollock liked drips or that Duchamp liked plumbing or even the fact that Michelangelo could paint upside down.
Hayward Gallery, currently host to a retrospective exhibition of Creed’s work, comes to terms with the numbers in at least two ways. First, the guide booklet takes the form of an A to Z (Adhesive Tape to Ziggurats). Second, the contributors to the catalogue respond to the show with lists of their own.
So, no, it hardly bears repeating that Creed numbers his art works. But one could also say that the list is a form for our times. The surprise is not that the Turner Prize-winning artist counts off his productions. It is rather that more artists do not do the same. After all, ‘200 reasons why you should visit a show by X’, would make a popular feature online.
Martin Creed was born in Wakefield in the North of England, but moved to Glasgow at the age of three. His family were Quakers and and his father was a silversmith. It may be said that he took simplicity from the household religion, but there appears to be little decorative smithery about his own art.
He won the Turner in 2001, the year in which Madonna (for some reason) was invited to present the £40,000 cheque. His supporting show at Tate outraged some sections of the UK press. It was just a room in which the light turned on and off once every five seconds (“Work No. 277”). You might have got the impression that Creed is a minimalist. But that’s a prejudice which is exploded in the current show.
At Hayward right now the lights are going on and off in the heart of a glut of audio-visual experience. From the mezzanine floor you can look around and see a 12-meter-wide kinetic sculpture which swings the word ‘Mothers’ round and round at quickening speed. You can watch a film in which a chihuahua (the world’s smallest dog) and an Irish wolfhound (the biggest) both appear twice their size. And you can marvel at a wall containing a forest of multi-colored prints made with broccoli. The gallery claims there are a thousand.
Creed has said, “all numbers are equal,” which suggests an equivalence between these diverse works and between the effects they produce (fear, sympathy, humor, and so on). But he has also said that feelings are the most important things to him. To underline the point, take “Work No. 336,” a neon sign with the word FEELINGS in block caps. And that’s blue neon, naturally.
The desire to level out all your emotional responses can seem a spot of control-freakery. But numbering the products and producers of these affects, Creed steps back from them. Like Joyce once said, the true artist remains hidden, “paring his fingernails.” The art here is a residue of lived experiences which have been boiled down to a schema, a formula, a balancing act or set of instructions. It works in theory.
Yet to be honest, this viewer’s emotional responses were limited. They included surprise at the sheer range of the artist’s output, having never thought of Creed as much of a painter before now. Then there were frequent moments of humor at the audacity of his reductive thinking. (“Work No. 79” is just a piece of Blu-Tack stuck to the wall, installed here by the artist himself with the thumb print to prove it.) All of which only left the dubious rewards brought on by his sick and shit films.
As the name suggests, these documents show everyday people undergoing natural bodily convulsions in a stark white studio space. A man makes himself sick and you worry about the splashback. A woman hitches her dress and squats and the pay off when it does arrive offers satisfaction of the most prurient kind. But thanks to those neutral catalogue numbers and the artist’s capacity for simplification, “Works No. 610” and “No. 660” come up smelling of roses.
Creed loves binaries: on and off (the lights), in and out (the bodily junk), and finally up and down: “Work No. 1029” documents in the rise and fall of an erection, a monochrome picture calling to mind some dry piece of 1970s performance art. (Getting wood is, one supposes, a performance which about half the adult population can manage.) But once again context neutralizes the action; you can view this work with complete strangers without so much as a blush.
The artist also loves counting and stacking. The piles of chairs, I beams, cardboard boxes and timber are just as silly and as reassuring as you might imagine them to be. And many of his paintings are equally process driven. One portrait is painted and hung about seven foot up the wall; the artist had to keep jumping in the air to paint it. Several abstractions, those ziggurats, are stepped forms made by using brushes of differing widths. You suspect the ‘Mothers’ here (as seen in the showstopping kinetic sculpture) to be, in Creed’s case, mothers of invention.
Which brings us around to music. Creed has a post-punk band who play schematic ditties about numbers, letters, and universal figures of speech. They are proficient, entertaining and full of energy. But is it hard to imagine one of his jokey closed circles coming to the rescue in a time of emotional need; there are a hundred and one bands who can do that better. And there is something of this deficiency in the art as well. You cannot deny this show’s wit and deep thoughtfulness. But you still might say that the feelings here are stifled by their many pigeon holes in an exhaustive system. So many boxes have been ticked.
Indeed, one of the most potent pieces on display turned out to have pre-existed the vast numbering project of his grown-up oeuvre. This was a remake of a tiny bronze fist, plated in gold, on a plinth, in a case, made while still at school. It was a poignant reminder of the limitations of protest, of the reification of artistic provocations, and of the alchemy by which contemporary art can transmute even anger and dissent into dollars. Having made such a gesture, many artists might have been tempted to give it all up there and then. But, to his credit, not Creed; he went on to make all this art-by-numbers. Whether you call it a post-political swan song or just a sophisticated game is entirely up to you.
Martin Creed: What’s the point of it? continues at the Hayward Gallery (Southbank Centre, Belvedere Rd, London) through May 5.